By Jeff Hemmel
10 Top Pontoon Boats: Our Favorites
If you are in the market for a new pontoon boat, there is a good chance one of these will fit the bill.
When it comes to pontoon boats, many people still think of a stodgy, slow-putt-around-the-lake. Made for entertaining, yes, but more like cocktail hour than rockin’ house party.
This reputation is changing—and fast. Many of the latest and greatest pontoons offer speed, handling, seaworthiness, and even the ability to be used as legit tow boats for skiing and wakeboarding. Yet they haven’t abandoned their strengths: passenger comfort and amenities have never been more cushy or diverse. And if you’re watching your pennies there’s good news for you, too. Leave off some of those plush amenities and speed, and basic models can be had for as little as $10,000. And yes, that’s with a motor, wise guy.
Thinking of tuning into the ‘toon? Here are 10 of our current favorites (in no particular order), guaranteed to please any passion—and any depth of pocketbook.
Aqua Patio 250 Express
Here’s a pontoon that is clearly targeted to appeal to the younger consumer. Just look at the edgy styling. Rather than classic perimeter fencing, the 250 sports molded fiberglass seating modules fore and aft. Forward, they give this party barge the sleek and sexy lines of a runabout. Aft those seating modules do likewise, and they also hide rear-facing rumble seats designed to take in a watersports show—which is enhanced by a sleek tow tower. The latter’s supports are even boldly integrated into the craft’s edgy exterior lines.
With up to 300 available horsepower, the Express has the power to deliver on its promise. Triple pontoons are oversized to 27” diameter and sport lifting strakes on the center tube, as well as the inside of the outer tubes. The combination delivers aggressive handling, but avoids excessive lean. Big tubes also prove a good match for big crowds, as well as bigger waters. For more info, visit the Aqua Patio 250 Express webpage.
Premier 221 Cast-a-Way
Plenty of entertaining gets done aboard a pontoon, but these versatile platforms also see a lot of one other favorite pastime—fishing. Premier’s Cast-a-Way caters to the latter crowd with a composite fish station aft with an integrated livewell, and two flanking fishing chairs. The well lid serves as a bait-prep station, with nooks molded into the cover to hold lures, hooks, and tools. Built-in lockable rod lockers and tackle trays are within reach, and entire aft area is covered in vinyl for easy clean-up. The helm features another livewell, a sink, and a Lowrance fishfinder.
In standard trim with two 25” pontoons and a 90 horsepower outboard, the Cast-a-Way is an affordable model that gets the job done nicely. Those wishing for more power and more aggressive handling can option up to Premier’s PTX package, which adds a third 36” tube to the mix, with a flat planing surface to provide lift. Premier 221 Cast-a-Way
Cypress Cay Seabreeze SL 230
A price-point model is attractive when you’re signing the paperwork, but no one likes a stripped-down look at the dock. Cypress Cay strikes a nice balance with the Seabreeze SL 230. Within, upholstery sports the same suede-like finish found in the brand’s higher-end models. Opt for the optional vinyl flooring and you can complement it with the look of teak, without the upkeep. Exposed rotomolded seatbases may be a giveaway to price concessions, but they’re nicely color-matched to the upholstery. In fact, I missed them at first glance.
The layout is similarly upscale. Amidships, Cypress Cay mixes things up with a forward-facing loveseat across from the helm. Aft, a spacious sunpad invites all-out lounging, but also accommodates those who prefer more supportive accommodations. Headrests are integrated into the rear cushion for facing forward; a reclining seat back forward offers support when facing aft. Raise the bed and you’ll find stowage, plus a biggie-sized curtained changing room. Twin 25” pontoons are standard issue. Upgrade to triples, with performance-oriented strakes, for greater capacity and improved handling.
For more info, watch our video boat review of the Cypress Cay Seabreeze SL 230.
Manitou 23 Legacy SHP
A recent trend has been to configure triple pontoons so that they mimic the handling of a V-hull. Manitou’s patented V-Toon technology pairs 23” diameter outer pontoons with a 27” center tube, dropped a full 5” lower, to allow the Legacy to bank and carve into a corner like its fiberglass counterparts. Add in the Sport Handling Package, including positive-angle lifting strakes, beefed-up nosecones, and SeaStar power-assist hydraulic steering, and you’ve also got a boat that planes lightning fast, handles aggressively, and with as much as 250 hp on the transom, tops out at over 50 mph.
Above deck, a traditional layout is highlighted by a 3” raised helm, designed to give the driver a more unobstructed, commanding view forward. Billet accents are in abundance, including a pedestal-mount rearview mirror, switch panels, and custom steering wheel. Another cool feature is the “toy box.” Hidden below the aft sunpad, it’s an extra-spacious compartment designed to hold plenty of skis and boards. Manitou 23 Legacy SHP
Harris FloteBote Grand Mariner SL 250
Bulky engine enclosures were once standard issue, partly to drown out a noisy two-stroke engine. Today’s four-strokes are clean and quiet, so Harris FloteBote completely opened up the stern of the Grand Mariner SL 250. A large, low-profile sunpad is positioned aft. A pivoting backrest moves to the rear to bring the focus into the main cockpit, or forward to turn that attention to the swim platform and water when lounging on the hook. The quality of the upholstery, teak-look padding on the swim platform, multiple cupholders, and handy stereo remote will tempt you to float the day away.
But trust us, get underway. The optional XTR performance package adds a third pontoon, drops it 2” lower than the outer tubes, and fashions that tube into an angular motor pod aft. Lifting strakes enhance the outer tubes. The result is an aggressive lean-in ride reminiscent of a fiberglass V-hull. An array of Mercury outboard power is available, up to a 300hp Verado. Watch our video boat review of the Harris FloteBote Grand Mariner SL 250 for more detail.
Sylvan 8525 Mandalay Bar
Sylvan avoids the traditional round pontoon; instead, the manufacturer’s 27” tubes are constructed to feature an actual V-shaped bottom, featuring a keel and chines. They dub the design “Revolutionary Planing Technology,” and it helps both performance and handling. With a 225hp Yamaha V Max outboard and optional center tube, the 8525 will plane almost instantaneously and top out at over 35 mph. Carving is aggressive, yet keeps the flatter feel inherent to pontoons.
The obvious standout feature of this particular model, however, is the actual bar at the craft’s stern. Pontoons have always been made for the cocktail cruise. This model takes that mission literally, offering up a faux-granite countertop and a trio of stools beckoning passengers to belly up. Flip a switch and a motorized bracket raises from a hidden nook below. Use it for a wineglass and plate holder, or mount up your own flatscreen TV. For more info, visit the Sylvan 8525 Mandalay Bar webpage.
Sweetwater SW 1570
With so much horsepower and so many amenities available, it’s easy to forget that pontoons don’t have to be big, nor do they have to be fast… or expensive. Sweetwater’s SW 1570 is a compact 15-footer that can be had with a simple 20hp outboard for less than $15,000. Obviously amenities are few, but you still get a fiberglass helm station, quality vinyl on the seats, a table with built-in cupholders, color-coordinated canopy with boot, and colored rail skin. Options include vinyl deck covering, depth- and/or fish-finder, Sony CD stereo with MP3 port, and trolling motor harness and plug.
Bench seating provides room for up to seven passengers, meaning the kids can invite some friends to spend the day on the water. Hinged seats open outward to unveil plenty of stowage room for all the stuff those passengers bring aboard for the ride. Sweetwater SW 1570
Bennington 2575 RCW I/O
You won’t find the typical outboard anchored to the stern of this Bennington 2575 RCW. Instead, housed below the engine hatch is a MerCruiser 350 MAG MPI stern-drive, ready to push this boat quickly onto plane and peak close to 45 mph. A stern-drive provides an unobstructed swim platform and clear view aft. Bennington responds with a separate seating area behind the helm, filled with twin lounges and rear-facing backrests that invite passengers to stretch out, relax, or take in the skiing, tubing, or boarding action happening in the boat’s wake.
The 2575 is yet another ‘toon that will handle more like one of its V-hull counterparts. Standard is the brand’s Elliptical Sports Package (ESP), which pairs 25”, performance-foil-equipped outer pontoons with a 32”, elliptically shaped center tube with lifting strakes. That central tube also provides the real estate for an enormous ski locker. Bennington 2575 RCW I/O
Avalon WindJammer Quad Lounger
As the name suggests, Avalon’s WindJammer Quad Lounger places a premium on kicking back, with plush, wraparound seating lining the perimeter. Forward, twin lounges stretch out invitingly with forward-facing backrests. Beside the helm, a love seat keeps a passenger or two close to the captain. Aft, corner lounges straddle the center boarding gate. Ample stowage is available below all, but don’t expect the roto-molded bins common in the industry. Instead, the manufacturer welds their own aluminum seat frames, which they promise provide better flow-through ventilation. Even the embossed exterior fencing avoids a common style. It’s fastened completely outside the perimeter rails to lend a sleek look to the exterior, while covering up areas that can accumulate dirt and debris.
An appealing option on the WindJammer is Avalon’s WaveGlider performance system. It features a trio of 25” pontoons with extruded lifting strakes, as well as Sea Star hydraulic steering and a 42-gallon fuel tank built into the real estate provided by the center tube. Avalon WindJammer Quad Lounger
Sun Tracker Bass Buggy
If your name is Bass Buggy, you’re sold at Bass Pro Shops, and you count brands like Tracker, Nitro, and Mako among your family members, it’s obvious you’d better be good. This longtime favorite received a makeover in 2012, resulting in fishing chairs with screw-in pedestals at the bow, an aerated livewell, vinyl flooring or 22-oz. marine carpet, rod holders, and a molded livewell unit with rod and drink holders. There’s even a lid ruler to measure your catch. And that’s before you even add the optional fish package, which throws a Lowrance fishfinder and MotorGuide trolling motor into the mix.
But perhaps most appealing about the Bass Buggy isn’t its fishing credentials, but its price. With a pair of 24” diameter pontoons, the 20-footer lists for a mere $11,595, including a 20hp Mercury FourStroke—and the 16-foot version can be had for under $10,000. Sun Tracker Bass Buggy
Entertaining? Rockin’ house party? All-day fishing? Lounge lizard lifestyle? Whatever your desire, there’s a good chance one of these top 10 pontoon boats is going to be perfect for your needs. So ditch that old mentality, and get ready to experience the pleasure of pontoon boating.
Think there’s a pontoon boat we missed that deserves to make this Top 10 list? Add it in the comments section below, or share it on our Facebook page.
- Jeff Hemmel writes for Boating, PersonalWatercraft.com, and Powersports Business. The former Senior Editor at Watercraft World, Jeff is a multi-time award winner as well as a 2008 inductee into the IJSBA Hall of Fame. His first book, The Anti-Pirate Potato Cannon...and 101 Other Things For Young Mariners To Try, Do, & Build On the Water, recently received a bronze medal in the 2010 Moonbeam Children's Book Awards. For more info, visit Jeff Hemmel's website..